Research Breakdown on Pet Anxiety: 72.5% of Dogs Display Anxiety-Related Traits

Whenever a thunderstorm rolls through, you may notice your dog exhibits symptoms of pet anxiety; excessive barking, licking, restlessness, or maybe uncontrollable shaking and cowering until the weather has passed.

While obvious symptoms of unease and apprehension like these are easy to recognize, many owners are not aware their dogs have pet anxiety or just how prevalent the problem truly is. 

The surprising truth about pet anxiety in dogs

  • Anxiety affects humans and animals alike, and evidence suggests it is a far more common condition in dogs than previously thought. According to a study published in the journal Scientific Reports, 72.5 percent of dogs show some type of “highly problematic” behavior.
  • “Based on our results, canine anxieties and behaviour problems are common across breeds,” wrote study authors. “There are around 77 million dogs in the United States and 85 million in Europe, and therefore these behaviour problems can affect millions of animals.”
  • The existence of pet anxiety behaviors in the dog population was only one piece of the puzzle; researchers not only tracked behavior prevalence, they tracked breed patterns, mapping out traits for 264 dog breeds, with a minimum sample size of 200 dogs per breed. 
  • What they found at the end of the study was pet anxiety behaviors appeared to be heavily linked to genetics, with some breeds far more likely to exhibit specific behaviors compared to others.

Pet anxiety behavior findings

To assess anxiety behaviors in dogs, researchers used observational data provided by owners through an in-depth questionnaire process. Pets were evaluated on seven common traits seen to correspond with pet anxiety, and those dogs were then ranked as high or low on a severity scale based on their reactions to subtraits, or specific triggers within the main category.A dog ranking high on the “noise sensitivity” category, for example, would show extreme responses within the subtrait triggers of thunder, fireworks, and gunshot. The categories of evaluation were:

  • Noise sensitivity (thunder, fireworks, gunshot)
  • Fear (strangers, other dogs, novel situations)
  • Fear of surfaces and heights (shiny surfaces, grates, stairs, steps, glass railings)
  • Impulsivity/inattention (assessed through ranking on a scale of 1-4 for frequency)
  • Compulsive behavior (tail chasing, fly snapping/light chasing, surface licking, pacing, staring, excessive drinking, and self-biting)
  • Aggression (toward family members, toward strangers)
  • Separation related behavior (destroy/urinate alone and vocalize/salivate/pant alone)

The findings revealed a number of insights, including:

  • Noise sensitivity was the most common pet anxiety trait (32 percent of dogs), with fear as the second most common trait (29 percent of dogs).
  • Separation related behavior was the least common pet anxiety trait (5 percent of dogs).
  • In dogs with noise sensitivity, fear of fireworks was the most prevalent, followed by fear of thunder and then fear of gunshot.
  • Dogs with fear issues were primarily fearful of other dogs.
  • Self-biting was the most common compulsive behavior witnessed.
  • Aggression witnessed related to pet anxiety was only slightly higher toward family members than toward strangers.
  • Fear behaviors were the most commonly seen alongside other anxiety traits, followed by noise sensitivity.
  • Dogs with separation related behavior were 4.1 times more often hyperactive/impulsive and 3.4 times more often inattentive than dogs not experiencing separation related behavior.
  • Fifty-three percent of dogs with extreme noise sensitivity displayed it toward more than one subtrait.
  • Within dogs ranked “highly fearful,” 38% were highly fearful toward multiple subtraits.
  • Male dogs were more likely to exhibit aggressive and hyperactive/impulsive behaviors, compared to female dogs.
  • Female dogs were more likely to exhibit fearful traits, compared to male dogs.
  • Male dogs were most likely to experience separation related behaviors.

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The findings between pet anxiety behaviors and breed

Breed of a dog can contribute to many things. Most well known of these is physical appearance; if you own a Boston Terrier, chances are it looks like most other Boston Terriers. But there are many other things breed genetics influence, and previous studies have explored the link between dog breed and personality traits such as the desire the herd, chase, or guard. 

It should come as no surprise to find certain breeds appear to be genetically predisposed to certain pet anxiety traits.

Researchers from the Scientific Reports study revealed the following findings:

  • Miniature Schnauzers were found to be the most aggressive toward strangers, compared to Labrador Retrievers who were the least aggressive.
  • Bull Terriers were the most likely to exhibit tail chasing, compared to no tail chasing witness among Lagotto Romagnolo dogs.
  • Mixed breed dogs ranked highest in hyperactivity/impulsivity and inattention.
  • Border Collies had high levels of compulsive staring and fly-snapping.
  • Lagotto Romagnolos ranked highest for levels of noise sensitivity, social fear, and aggression.
  • Staffordshire Bull Terriers showed high levels of compulsive behavior, hyperactivity, and inattention.
  • Rough Collies and mixed breed dogs were the most likely to have fear of surfaces/heights.
  • German Shepherds, noted to be a common breed seen in clinic for behavioral issues, ranked high in excessive drinking, pacing, and compulsive behavior.

What the data suggests about pet anxiety

While the most shocking number to come from the study was the overall prevalence of pet anxiety in dogs, researchers feel there is a case to be made for using selective breeding to help decrease the occurrence of undesirable behavior in specific breeds. “Our findings on breed differences indicate that canine anxieties likely have a genetic basis,” stated the authors. “In previous studies, many behavioural traits have been indeed shown to have small to moderate heritabilities and recently we mapped two loci for generalized fear and noise sensitivity. Therefore, it could be possible to decrease the prevalence of canine anxieties by selecting non-anxious animals for breeding.”While awareness in breeding is a solution moving forward, what about the millions of dogs already suffering from pet anxiety?

Possible solutions for pet anxiety

When your dog is exhibiting severe symptoms of pet anxiety, it’s easy to want to go to the veterinarian and get a prescription medication. For some dogs, this is the only solution, especially if they are a danger to themselves or to others. Unfortunately, most prescription pharmaceuticals carry with them a list of side-effects, some of which can be equally as devastating.Before you reach for the prescription bottle, speak with a behaviorist to see if there are other solutions for you and your dog. In some cases, the source of pet anxiety can be removed from the environment, and the problem can be resolved. In other cases, gradual exposure to a stimulus or desensitization from stress cues can also help. For pets unable to avoid their source of stress, non-invasive options exist, such as:

  • Thunder vests
  • Increased exercise
  • Music therapy
  • Massage therapy

Nutritional supplements have also become popular over the years and offer a way to boost other methods to relieve pet anxiety. While many of these herbal supplements utilize known natural sedatives like the hormone melatonin, new options on the market are offering CBD (cannabidiol) as an alternative.

CBD for dogs is a topic of current research in the veterinary world, but preliminary findings suggest it may have a number of therapeutic uses, including that of seizure, inflammation, and anxiety treatment in animals through interactions with serotonin.

Derived from cannabis or hemp plants, CBD in a non-psychoactive compound that can interact with endocannabinoid receptors located in the central and peripheral nervous systems. These systems keep the body in a normal, healthy state of functioning.

Due to its status as an emerging therapy option, however, owners are advised to seek veterinary council before starting a pet on a supplemental CBD program.

Dogs should have a full physical, and any current medications they are receiving should be evaluated for potential interactions with products containing CBD for dogs.

Written by: Mead Johnston
Mead is an experienced dog trainer, writer, and lover of animals. She has always been surrounded by animals and had a passion for learning more about them every day. This passion grew tremendously when Mead brought home a Great Pyrenees x Golden Retriever named Mac in 2018. Mead has continued to learn more about dogs whenever possible and wherever possible, while also helping so many wonderful clients. Her goal is help her clients and their dogs become confident in their daily lives. As a dog trainer, she often helps clients who are starting off with a puppy or they might have an older dog that is presenting challenging behaviours. Mead believes in the all-natural uses of Pet CBD to help our furry loved ones live longer, happier and healthier lives.

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